The forests of India are alive with the presence of the tiger, whether or not one actually sees this magnificent cat. To the amateur wildlife enthusiast, the cat is a treat to spot at national parks and wildlife reserves. To the seasoned biologist or those who share space with the tiger, it is a ghost. Always present, yet rarely glimpsed. You may never spot that pattern of sunset stripes slinking through the brush, but other signs of the tiger’s presence stand out against the landscape – scrapes on the peeling tree bark, a half-eaten carcass, rounded pugmarks in the dust, scat coiled along dirt roads (tigers seem to prefer traveling on roads when not hunting). But to see a tiger itself in a tiger forest is an honour and a privilege. To see a tiger thrills us, but it is also a solemn reminder of how we are slowly stripping this predator of its rightful habitat. Tiger forests — tracts of forested land conserved as tiger habitat — are some of the last remaining strongholds of this big cat, and serve a vital role in the restoration of ecological communities. But how do we convince the public of the value of a few patches of trees?
Let’s face it — species such as the Malabar civet, the flying squirrel, and the white-rumped vulture — are not quite as charismatic as the tiger or the elephant, and especially not to your regular citizen with limited knowledge of ecology. They don’t inspire large conservation projects, or attract donations or campaigns. Hence the concept of a flagship species – a species that draws the public eye and invokes sentiment. A well-known example of such a species is the giant panda, the emblem of the World Wildlife Fund. Tigers, as another flagship species, inspire large-scale conservation efforts and programmes such as Project Tiger, a conservation initiative launched in 1973 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Since then, India has gained 50 tiger reserves under the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Recently, in 2016, the heads of the world’s tiger range countries came together to create a plan for the doubling of the world’s tiger population by the year 2022. This would entail an increase of nearly 3,000 tigers in six years, a tall order even for species with rapid reproduction rates and short gestation periods. Unfortunately, the tiger falls in neither of the above categories. Yet this goal, however lofty, provides fodder for ongoing conservation and stricter regulations of the landscapes where these big cats roam.
The tiger, apart from capturing the souls and minds of many, plays an important role in maintaining ecosystem health and integrity. Most tiger conservation movements involve preserving forested landscapes to allow for ease of dispersal by these big cats. Whether in the Sundarbans or in the semi-arid deciduous forests of Rajasthan, big cats are losing habitat to expansion of agricultural fields and sprawling human settlements. It is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve enough intact forest to allow for a healthy breeding population of tigers. But connecting these tiger forests gives hope not only for tigers but also for the plethora of endemic plant and animal species that rely on wild landscapes to survive.
Tigers do not require much to survive – a healthy tract of forest, an adequate prey base, and limited interaction with curious humans. They are found in forests across India, from the monsoon mountains of the Western Ghats to the semi-arid forests of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to the unexplored reaches of Northeast India. But in India, tiger habitat is constrained to small pockets of forested land. Our 542 protected areas are tiny, nothing compared to the vast expanses of land set aside for wildlife in African nations and in the United States. Add to that the high density of human populations living around and within protected areas, and it is no wonder that we need additional protection for our tiger forests. Tribal rights and ancestral land allow for certain forest uses by indigenous people, and many forests are heavily degraded due to the high volume of human traffic. Tiger reserves such as Sathyamangalam, Mudumalai, Bandipur, and Nagarahole – all within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – have major roads traversing through them, posing a threat to both forest integrity and to the safety of the wildlife within these reserves. Given that this biodiversity hotspot is home to approximately half of India’s extant tiger population and facilitates gene flow between the Western and Eastern Ghats, it is crucial to maintain these forests to ensure the survival of the big cats.
In protecting the forests where tigers live, we are also ensuring our own survival. Tiger forests are the source of many of India’s peninsular rivers, and a healthy forest translates into a pristine river, the benefits of which are reaped by humans as well as by wildlife. Additionally, forests act as carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide and reducing the effects of greenhouse gases on our planet’s climate. Having denser, more productive forests cools the landscape and facilitates more oxygen production. Oxygen, as we all know, is crucial to our survival. Cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, which are losing tree cover rapidly due to ongoing development, would do well to remember this and act accordingly. In regions where settlements and cities occur close to forest patches, these forests serve as a habitat for wildlife that might otherwise enter settlements in search of food. Protecting these forest patches will also reduce incidences of human-wildlife conflict, which is a global conservation concern.
Today, March 21st, is celebrated as the International Day of Forests. While this is cause to be glad, it is also haunting that we need to set aside a day to remember our forests. Maybe it is time we heed the need of the hour and protect our tiger forests so that we can save our national animal, save our pristine life-giving rivers, and maybe, save ourselves too.